Horns and Halos: Gram Parsons Delivered Transcendent Music with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Fallen Angels

May 1st, 2014

By Alan di Perna | Photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Few of the guitars that belonged to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons are around today. Much like the man himself — who died of morphine-and-tequila overdose in 1973 at the age of 26 — his instruments tended to have disastrously short but eventful lives, creating exquisite, game-changing music before making an untimely exit. Many were lost in a fire at Parsons’ home in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon not long before his death.

But two that survive are very much the alpha and omega of Parsons’ guitar history. There’s his small-body 1963 Martin 00-21 flattop acoustic guitar, currently in the collection at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, which dates from Parsons’ earliest days as a young up-and-coming participant in the mid-Sixties folk boom. Then there’s the custom acoustic made by luthier David Russell Young in 1973, an instrument that dates from Parsons’ final days and was prominently played on the legendary Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels tour of that same year. The guitar recently hit the auction block, consigned by Parson’s widow, Gretchen Parsons-Carpenter.

In the decade that separates these two guitars, Parsons played a key role in bringing country music out of the honky tonks and into the forefront of rock music through his landmark work with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and as a solo artist. In the process, he opened up a rich vein of songcraft rooted in the heartbreak tropes of country balladry, yet fused with post-Sixties existential angst.

It’s safe to say there would be no Eagles without Gram Parsons. Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon even played alongside him for a while in the Flying Burrito Brothers. In terms of more contemporary music, Parsons is one of the patriarchs of what we now call alt-country and Americana. His own preferred phrase was “American Cosmic Music.” Call it what you will, the whole twangy crew from Wilco to Neko Case to Jim Lauderdale to Lucius are, in one way or another, the children of Gram Parsons.

Of course, country music was often at the party since the earliest days of rock and roll. The revolutionary music of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis was a jumped-up shotgun wedding of country and blues, but after the British Invasion country music had fallen by the wayside as rock artists started taking rock more seriously in the Sixties. When rock musicians did perform country songs, they generally relegated it to novelty status as heard on mid-decade hits like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” and the Beatles cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” which exploited the witty side of country lyricism. But country’s more somber side and growing associations with social and political conservatism (which reached a peak in Merle Haggard’s 1969 single “Okie from Muskogee”) were definitely off-putting to many late-Sixties rock music fans, who started to build a dividing line between the two genres.

At Gram Parsons’ prompting, the Byrds crossed that line in 1968 with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Today, the album is hailed as an ambitious landmark work in the country-rock movement, but it was a commercial failure in its time. Chief Byrd Jim (Roger) McGuinn had intended it to be a celebration of 20th century American music thus far, from folk to electronic, but Parsons pushed things in more of a stone-country direction. With his boyish good looks, well-heeled southern charm, and prodigious musical talent, he could be very persuasive.

“Gram was really a strong musical force,” McGuinn said in 1990. “I just let him go and went along with it because it was fun. I was having a good time with it. We went to Nudies” — Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohn, known for his flamboyant Western-style suits — “and got some country clothes and cowboy hats. I got a Cadillac and got into the whole country thing. I started listening to country radio and talking with a southern accent. It was like Halloween or something for a long, extended period.”

By contextualizing songwriters like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie alongside Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, and Stax tunesmith William Bell, Sweetheart of the Rodeo broadened the perspective of the variegated sources that make up rock’s roots. It wasn’t just about folk and blues, and it never really was, although that’s where Dylan, the Stones, and their acolytes focused the lens at mid decade. On Sweetheart, the Byrds cast the net a little wider. The album also introduced the world to Parsons’ own prodigious songwriting gifts. The winsome bittersweet nostalgia of “Hickory Wind” and the cosmic cowboy philosophy of “One Hundred Years from Now” announced the arrival of a major new voice in popular music.

But Parsons’ time with the Byrds wasn’t long. Always restless and somewhat erratic in behavior — almost as if he knew how little time he had — Parsons went on to co-found the Flying Burrito Brothers with fellow ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in 1968. His two albums with that group — The Gilded Palace of Sin, in 1969, and Burrito Deluxe the following year — brought Parsons’ songwriting into diamond-sharp focus.

The Christian concepts of sin and redemption became central to his music. The classic Parsons-Hillman tune “Sin City” is easily one of the best songs about Los Angeles. Putting a jaded urban spin on the Louvin Brothers’ country-gospel fervor, Parsons anticipates a cataclysmic day of judgment for the City of Angels’ smoggy hedonism and morally suspect music business. This Biblical preoccupation came directly out of his own troubled childhood as the son of rich, southern, Catholic, alcoholic parents. His father committed suicide on Christmas day when Gram was 12, and his mother died from cirrhosis of the liver on the day Gram graduated high school. He carried a lot of darkness, but he wrapped it in a lot of light.

Parsons’ love of country music’s florid lyrics and ostentatious costumes was matched by his choice of gear. Onstage and in the studio, he favored big, ornate cowboy guitars — Gibson J-200s and Hummingbirds, and Epiphone Frontiers. With their mustache bridges and pickguards decorated with flora and fauna, these flashy guitars are very much in the same tradition as Nudie Cohn’s Western suits, which Parsons brought into vogue among rock musicians. But his take on country tradition was uniquely his own and quintessentially rock and roll. For example, his most well-known Nudie suit, also in the Country Music Hall of Fame collection, features embroidered images of marijuana leaves and naked women.

Given his fondness for a big guitar and a filled fruit jar, not to mention his encyclopedic knowledge of country music, Parsons made an ideal buddy for Keith Richards as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies. It’s an exaggeration to say that Parsons turned the Stones on to country music. Long before Parsons came along, Richards was copping licks from George Jones’ guitarist Charlie Carter when the Stones toured Texas in the mid Sixties. But Parsons put Jagger and Richards hip to some of the music’s finer points. Gram and his soon-to-be-wife Gretchen Burrell lived for a while at Richards’ house in the South of France, where they were part of the notorious ongoing upstairs party while the Stones were working on Exile on Main St. in the grand villa’s basement.

There is some speculation that Parsons played a songwriting role on country-flavored Stones tracks like “Wild Horses,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Sweet Virginia,” but such things are hard to prove. People also wonder if Parsons played guitar on any Exile tracks, though Richards says that he never did.

“But why he didn’t is a good question,” Richards said in 2004. “Gram and I would play a lot upstairs in the living area, and he would play with Mick [Taylor] a lot up there. But Gram was a little shy, and we were too busy to say, ‘Hey, Gram, come down here; we need another guitar.’ He would distance himself from us when we were working. He’d come and listen a bit, but that was it. If I have a friend — and Gram was my friend — Mick sometimes gives off a vibe like, You can’t be my friend if you’re his. That could have a bit to do with why Gram’s not playing on the record.”

By the autumn of 1972, Parsons was back in L.A., signed to Reprise Records as a solo artist, and at work on his first album under the deal, GP. Around that time, he came through the doors of Westwood Music, just south of UCLA, looking for a new guitar. The store’s owner, Fred Walecki, knew him well, as he’d sold Gram a few guitars and hung with him. At the time, Westwood Music was at the epicenter of L.A.’s burgeoning country, rock, and folk guitar scene.

“Gram was a party kid,” Walecki recalls. “He was in love with the spike [intravenous drugs], but he wasn’t like some horrible nodding-out drug addict. Gram was like an angel. He was so innocent in a lot of ways.”


(Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Parsons knew what he wanted: a guitar like the one Walecki had recently sold to Merle Haggard’s wife, which was made by luthier David Russell Young and ornamented with the maker’s extraordinary fretboard and headstock inlay work, a floral pattern often called the Tree of Life. This kind of instrument was very much in Parson’s style: flashy and floral, but also elegant and classy. Walecki commissioned Russell to build an instrument for Parsons, which became Parsons’ stage guitar.

The guitar figured prominently in the Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels Tour of 1973. The nominal goal of this traveling country-rock soap opera–cum-circus was to promote GP. The album was actually a tough sell at the time, although it is now recognized as a classic, rich in poignant southern vignettes and honky-tonk weepers like “She” and “A Song for You,” sweetened by mournful pedal steel, fiddle, and gospel vocal harmonies coming at you like Jesus and his angels beaming down from the nearest cloud. On the record, Parsons was backed by the crème de la crème of Elvis Presley’s stage band: guitar legend James Burton, keyboardist Glen D. Hardin, and drummer Ron Tutt, as well as country legends Buddy Emmons and Al Perkins on pedal steel and Byron Berline on fiddle.

“Gram just loved country music,” Burton said in 2011. “He and I would go out to the Palomino [a country music club in North Hollywood] and sit in. He wanted me to play guitar with him. His music was fun, and he was fun to be around. He was a good old boy.”

GP also benefits from vocal contributions by a young angel-voiced brunette named Emmylou Harris. Chris Hillman brought the up-and-coming singer into the fold. Walecki notes, “Chris’s idea, as I recall, was to get Emmylou Harris to come in, sing on Gram’s album, and then sing on his own album. We had quite the little society.”

Right from the start, Harris and Parsons shared a deep musical empathy, their voices twining in the best country-duo tradition of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. For many years, Harris’s main guitar was a Sixties Gibson J-200 that Gram had given her. Their musical bond, moreover, was starting to blossom into romance. Harris didn’t want to move in on Gram’s marriage to Gretchen, but she could see that that union was rapidly dissolving. So Emmylou chose to bide her time. If only she’d known how little was left.

Parsons and Harris — with a jealous Gretchen Parsons in the entourage — set out on the road in 1973, touring the U.S. as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Parsons and Harris made for an explosive combination onstage. Early dates were a bit hit and miss, Parsons being notoriously nonchalant about nailing down things like intros and song arrangements. His deep-seated drug and alcohol issues had made him an erratic live performer from the start, but contemporary accounts credit Harris with whipping the band — and Gram — into shape. By the end of the trek, they were blazing away.

Harris exerted a beneficial influence on Parsons. “When I heard the news that Emmylou and Gram had fallen in love, I was happy for them,” Walecki recounts. “Especially the news that she wasn’t tolerating the drugs and alcohol, so he was on the straight and narrow.”

But it was probably too late at that point. Even though Parsons was just in his mid twenties, his health was already seriously compromised by years of abusing booze and dope. “He was shaking the last time I saw him,” Walecki recalls. “Literally. He had pancreatitis, the same thing that killed Lowell George. It was one of those things where he could never get high ever again.”

Harris valiantly worked with Parsons to put together a follow-up to GP. Their plan was to make a duo album, again in the grand country tradition of mixed-gender duets. But Parsons wasn’t in the best of shape, and the songs weren’t coming easily without the familiar aids of drugs and alcohol. “He was writing for the next album,” Walecki says, “and I don’t think he believed that he could go to that place and write songs without using something as a bridge to get there.”

Even so, Parsons was able to come up with two of his greatest songs, the multivalent trucker/traveling musician’s prayer “In My Hour of Darkness” and the anthemic “Return of the Grievous Angel,” tracks that would soon serve as a eulogy of sorts for the troubled singer. Harris helped him put together the former, and Boston poet Thomas Brown contributed the lyrics for the latter, which celebrated “the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, and a good saloon in every single town.”

With this new material, some leftovers from Parson’s back pages, a few inspired covers, and superb support from Burton, Hardin, Tutt, and a cadre of top country session players, Parsons and Harris cut an album that stands as one of Parsons’ very finest moments. It was to have been titled Sleepless Nights and jointly credited to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, but fate had something else in store.

While on a vacation getaway with friends at Joshua Tree National Monument, Parsons took a fatal dose of morphine, mixed with tequila, presumably by accident. He died on September 19, 1973. After his death, Gretchen Parsons had Emmylou Harris’s name and likeness deleted from the album’s front cover. With a few changes in the running order, the disc was retitled Grievous Angel.

The epithet is ideally suited to Parsons, a man frequently described as angelic by those who knew him. But he was an angel who carried a grievous burden, one that rendered short his days on this earth but allowed him to leave behind a rich musical legacy that is still thriving today.

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Comments

  1. Posted by Ginny Winn on May 2nd, 2014, 01:32 [Reply]

    Beautiful tribute to Gram. That is my favorite Gram shot & I’ve never seen it before. Who is the photographer? Thanks! (I did a few of his iconic shots.)

  2. Posted by Lans Christensen on June 26th, 2014, 21:33 [Reply]

    Interesting…but very incomplete….Gram was introduced, and initiated to true country music by the late John Nuese, with whom the International Submarine Band was formed. Their album “Safe At Home” is widely regarded as the first breakthrough album in that overused “country rock” genre. Astonished that the article does not acknowledge this milestone.

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